September 3, 2020

What advertisers can do to defund disinformation?

Bunk COVID-19 cures, anti-protest claims and climate change denials. Brands don’t want to be funding these conspiracies or the disinformation campaigns behind them.

Yet, the pandemic has created a perfect storm for this to occur. Ad budgets have been slashed meaning there is less ad funding available to support the high quality journalism people need during the crisis. And the crisis itself has spawned a plethora of conspiracies which are sucking up some of the ad dollars that are being spent.

Well-known brands are seeing their ads winding up on high-risk disinformation sites and conspiracy articles about COVID-19, the protests and climate change (see screenshots).

For example, the software company VEEAM uses programmatic ad spend via Google to target a potential customer—whether they go to trusted news sites like The Guardian or known disinformation sites like The American Thinker. GoogleAds services both sites alike.

How do these ads end up on disinformation platforms? The lack of effective brand safety measures in place at the ad-buying level creates a gap which allows the same ad served by the same network to end up on two very different types of news sites—one providing trusted information and the other one promoting conspiracies.

This lack of transparency points to the broader problem of an opaque programmatic ad ecosystem. As highlighted in a recent study by the UK advertising association (ISBA) and PwC, an estimated 49 percent of an advertiser’s budget is used up before an ad appears due to the number of players involved in its placement along the supply chain (see Figure 1). And for the 15 large advertisers covered in the study, the average number of sites their brands ended up on was more than 40,000.

Figure 1: Supply Chain - Programmatic Advertising

(source: ISBA & PwC, 2020).

As the GDI detailed in its white paper (2019), the programmatic ad system is complicated, opaque and set up to use our data footprints to follow us, regardless of the disinformation risks of the sites that we visit. The sheer number of players—who often play multiple roles in the system—makes it hard to fix without an industry-wide solution to the industry-wide problem of ad-funded disinformation (see figure 2). To stop funding disinformation, all ad tech players need to adopt a minimum and effective common approach to risk rating sites for disinformation.

Figure 2: Schematic overview of display advertising actors

Source: Lumascape 2020 -

The majority of brand advertising budgets have shifted to digital advertising. According to global advertising company GroupM, internet-related advertising is by far the most important medium and an estimated US$326 billion in ad revenue will be targeted by brands to this channel in 2020. These estimates reflect the state of play prior to the current recession and pandemic. The World Economic Forum estimates that ad spends have fallen an average of 9% just across Europe.

More disconcerting, a lot of the growth in online advertising is happening in emerging market countries like Brazil, Indonesia and Nigeria. These media ecosystems may not be as well understood by global advertisers, including the disinformation risks that local sites present.

Without an effective risk-rating approach, the current ad-tech ecosystem will continue to create opportunities for ad fraud and encourage the perverse incentives that allow high-risk disinformation sites to earn ad monies. The system will continue to divert the ad monies toward disinformation rather than low-risk and credible news sites.

And as the world continues to reel from the current and devastating public health crisis, trusted and reliable information is essential. It is truly a matter of life and death.

At the GDI, we are calling for advertisers and ad tech companies to:

  • Proactively use dynamic and automated processes to help flag the disinformation narratives that are in current use—and to steer ads from sites carrying high levels of this content.
  • Adopt industry-wide, real-time risk ratings that assess disinformation as a brand safety concern.
  • Establish greater transparency checks and balances for the ad tech ecosystem to be better able to follow the money from the advertiser to the news sites that they support.
  • Work with trusted publishers globally to support their content, particularly on key social and environmental concerns like COVID-19, racial justice protests and climate change.

Such measures should be “owned” by brands and the ad tech industry to provide support to credible journalism as part of their corporate sustainability agenda and making digital advertising work for everyone.

Without an industry-led response, governments will have to step in to advance such measures. The European Union is considering this already, with the Digital Services Act and an update to its Code of Practice on Disinformation.

The COVID-19 infodemic has exposed how the current ad tech ecosystem is broken. It is time to fix it so everyone benefits—and disinformation is defunded.

Join us in the journey together.

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